Lithography Turns 200 | Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan

By Nancy Sojka

The Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan commemorates the 200-year history of lithography as a fine-art form with two exhibitions in 1998. A Celebration of Lithography: Nineteenth-Century Invention and Innovation (through April 5) and Twentieth-Century Expansion and Exploration (May 7-August 16) are drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent collection, with some loans from other local collections.

In the late 1700s, an unsuccessful German actor and playwright named Alois Senefelder [1771-1834] was looking for a fast, economical way to publish his plays. After much experimentation, he invented the process known as lithography, and by 1798, he had perfected the technique.

To create a lithograph, a drawing is made with a greasy material on a stone or metal plate. The surface of the plate is then chemically treated so that the image areas accept ink while the remaining areas repel it. Senefelder’s discovery was so successful that he stopped writing plays and spent the rest of his life perfecting the process.

The versatility of lithography was immediately evident to printers, who encouraged artists to adopt this new process for their imagery. For artists, the advantage of lithography is the medium’s ability to convey accurately the quality of an original drawing in multiple impressions. The steps involved in creating a lithograph from an artist’s drawing are far less intrusive on the image than in any other printmaking medium. Consequently, a lithograph is as close to the artist’s hand as a collector can get without acquiring an original drawing. All the nuances of the artist’s touch remain visible in a lithograph.

Drawing on stone with tusche (the “greasy material” in liquid form) applied with a pen was the most reliable technique for early lithographers. As the preparation of stones and the manufacture of lithographic materials improved, the crayon or chalk technique became popular. Crayon lithographs dominate the current exhibition in Detroit, but most of these images are far more than a sum of black lines printed from a stone or plate. Scraping—literally scratching through the tusche or crayon on the printing surface with a sharp tool—is a crucial element in these lithographs. When printed, these scraped lines take on the color of the supporting sheet of paper, contributing as much or more to a composition as the lines drawn with pens, crayons, or brushes.

Printed color (as opposed to color applied by hand after completion of the printing process) first appeared as a tinted backdrop to the main drawing in lithographs in the early 1800s. Lithotint, a brush technique that approximates a wash or watercolor drawing by using dilutions of lithographic ink, was perfected in the 1840s by the English printer Charles Hullmandel. Among the best-known practitioners of lithotint was the American expatriate James Whistler, who first experimented with the technique in the 1870s with his English printer Thomas Way. Fine-art lithographs printed in full color by French artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard became the rage in the 1890s.

Over the course of the 19th century, lithography as a fine-art form experienced a cycle of highs and lows. Initially, Senefelder’s secrecy about the process and hardships throughout Europe resulting from the Napoleonic Wars made fine-art lithographs scarce before 1815. But with the establishment of peace and the publication of detailed technical manuals by Senefelder in 1818, followed by guidebooks by other prominent printers such as Charles Hullmandel in England and Godefroy Engelmann in France, lithography took off. By the late 1820s, France had surpassed Germany as the hub of creative endeavors in lithographic printmaking.

The appropriateness of lithography for original, high-quality prints was debated from the late 1840s into the 1870s. Extensive commercial use, a fascination with the growing use of photography (invented in 1839), and a renewed emphasis on etching as the preferred medium for painter-printmakers contributed to a loss of interest in lithography.

By the end of the 19th century, however, artists, printers, and publishers began to re-examine lithography and found that the medium had much to offer. Printing original drawings from stones and plates became as popular as it had been in the early 1800s.

Many factors contributed to this resurgence: Craft, the hands-on process of making high-quality objects, was in fashion again, and mechanical reproduction was out of favor. A booming economy created a moneyed leisure class that became both the subject and consumer of the new art, particularly in France. Paris was again the center of printmaking, as artists worked with experienced printers to create original lithographs.

The story of fine-art lithography shifted in the 20th century from Europe to the United States. Again, an ebb and flow characterized the popularity of the medium over a century shaped by two world wars.  To this day, exceptionally skilled artists and printers continue to push the parameters of lithography, asking age-old as well as new aesthetic questions and still finding original, creative answers.

Featured in “In The Museums” April 1998